The earliest authoritative text available for Measure for Measure was published in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays dated 1623. Today, most critics accept this version of the play as a transcription of Shakespeare's "foul papers," that is, an uncorrected manuscript written in the playwright's own hand. This theory is based on the presence in the text of anomalies often found in uncorrected manuscripts, such as sparse stage directions, omitted and transposed words, and mislineations. The first recorded performance of Measure for Measure was on December 26, 1604, when a play entitled "Mesur for Mesur" by "Shaxberd" was performed at Whitehall before King James I and his court by "his Maiesties players," the troupe with which Shakespeare was associated from early 1603 until his retirement.
Two works have traditionally been regarded as the primary sources of Measure for Measure: a novella in a collection of tales entitled Hecatommithi (1565) by Giovanni Battista Giraldi (known as Cinthio) and George Whetstone's two-part play, The Right Excellent and Famous Historye of Promos and Cassandra (1578), which was based on Cinthio's novella. However, several critics have noticed significant parallels between Measure for Measure and Epitia (1583), a drama adapted by Cinthio from his novella. These discoveries have led to the generally accepted theory that Shakespeare derived the main aspects of his plot from both of Cinthio's works and used the structure of Whetstone's drama to organize the action, characterization, and themes of Measure for Measure. According to this hypothesis, Shakespeare drew upon the Hecatommithi for the Duke's magnanimous nature, his deputation of Angelo, Isabella's intellectual character and her refusal to accept Angelo's proposition, and the Duke's attraction to Isabella. In Epitia, Shakespeare found the conflict between justice and mercy and expanded it into a central theme in Measure for Measure. Finally, Shakespeare incorporated into Measure for Measure certain alterations of Cinthio's Hecatommithi which Whetstone used in Promos and Cassandra, such as the inclusion of a comic subplot.
Measure for Measure has fascinated and perplexed audiences and critics alike for centuries. Critical assessments have ranged from profound disappointment in the play's lack of consistency to assertions that Measure for Measure ranks as one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements. Scholars have in fact disagreed on virtually every aspect of the play, including its central themes and artistic unity as well as its style, genre, and characterization. Principal topics of debate have included the characterizations of the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo. Scholars have for example been divided over whether the Duke is manipulative or wise; whether Isabella is rigidly moralistic or saintly and compassionate; and whether Angelo is incomprehensibly split into two separate personalities—one respectable and the other villainous.
Recent criticism has focused on the play's effectiveness at dealing with the themes of justice versus mercy, and critics have argued over whether the play functions as an allegory for Christian charity versus the letter of the law. Another source of scholarly speculation has been Isabella's silence in response to the Duke's marriage proposal. Critics have argued over whether her muteness indicates acceptance or rejection of his offer, and both critics and stage directors have suggested a variety of ways of dramatizing Isabella's reaction. Finally, critics continue to debate over the genre of Measure for Measure. While early commentators described the play as a comedy, owing to the fact that it ends in a series of betrothals and marriages, others have called it a tragicomedy that is neatly split into a tragic first half and a comic second half. Today, most critics agree that Measure for Measure has earned its designation as a "problem play"—both because it leaves us with moral issues which remain ambiguous to the end and because it refuses to be neatly classified.
Measure for Measure is a disturbing play for critics, directors, and audiences alike. While the play raises a variety of compelling issues—the extent to which mercy should temper justice, the nature of power and the need for self-knowledge; the relationship between men and women and the definition of gender roles and human sexuality—none of these questions appears to be answered definitively by the close of the play. Angelo seems to be as inflexible as ever; Isabella is silent in the face of the Duke's marriage proposal; the Duke has used subterfuge to accomplish his aims; and Mariana is married to someone who doesn't want her. Is this, commentators ask, the stuff of tragedy or comedy? How, directors wonder, should Isabella's silence be staged? What are we to think of the Duke's behavior—is it manipulative or full of wisdom? Such issues continue to be hotly debated. Ultimately, we are left to conclude tha the questions raised by Measure for Measure—and our own varied responses to them—are more worthwhile than any one answer the play might otherwise provide.